Tag Archive: “Joe” Carstairs

Elvira’s Delage and Albemarle Street

Among the items that the police catalogued in Elvira’s bathroom (see https://elvirabarney.wordpress.com/2011/11/04/elviras-reading-matter/ ) was a business card from J.Smith and Co Motor Agents.  They operated from 28 Albemarle Street, Mayfair, and held the concession for the importation of the French luxury cars, Delage. Given Elvira’s love of her model and her regular scrapes and crashes, she was undoubtedly a very valued customer.

The Delage was a very apt car for Elvira to own. Everything French, to Elvira and many of her set, signified pleasure and panache. Paris, Cannes and Toulon were Elvira’s regular haunts and French style, in shows, fashion or design, was a matter of wonder and worship. The Delage cars were both fast and chic (as well as being reassuringly expensive). The car had come to prominence partly through a 1920s’ motor-racing rivalry with Hispano-Suiza (whose London agents were also in Albemarle Street) and partly through a series of seductive Art Deco adverts in the fashionable magazines of the day


J. Smith and Co. capitalised on this and, being situated where they were, were ideally placed to market the vehicles to Mayfair and Knightsbridge’s wealthy inhabitants. I don’t suppose their turnover was enormous but then it would not need to have been. Exclusivity was part of the charm.

I can’t be absolutely positive of this, but Delage cars do seem to have had a particular appeal for female drivers. Many of the photographs from the 1930s show the car next to a pretty young woman but, unlike the more familiar “cheesecake” models of the 1950s and 1960s, many of these women look as if they might actually own the car. The combination of privilege, social freedom and sexual independence discernible in these images is not , I think, accidental.

In England, some of these associations might be down to a woman whose exploits Elvira (a keen sports fan) would have certainly followed. About the time Elvira purchased her Delage, the Queen of Brooklands was the diminutive Kay Petre, then the best known female racing-driver in the country. In the early thirties, the much-photographed Petre drove a Delage.

Kay Petre (1903-1994)

Here are some more examples. The emphasis is on glamour and modernity in equal measure. The wealthy young woman in a sports car is a key iconic image of the inter-war years and Delage, who essentially fitted racing-car quality engines into luxury bodies, enthusiastically fed, and fed upon, that image.

The gender and class politics of the relationship between women and automobiles in the eras before mass car ownership are complex and fascinating. Machines and technology generally were then, as to a great extent they are now, seen as belonging to the male domain. Women in charge of powerful cars  presented a challenged a whole series of accepted hierarchies. This resulted in some very recognisable “new” stereotypes.On the one hand you have the “masculine women” – figures such as Elvira’s friends Joe Carstairs and Heather Pilkington – then you have the “Iris Storm” characters, whose taming of the “male beast”, the car, symbolised their own (hetero)sexual freedoms but also hinted at voraciousness and promiscuity. Funnily enough, Elvira can make claims to represent aspects of both “tendencies” These and other matters are discussed in two books on the history of women and the motor car

Eat My Dust -Early Women Motorists

The Car and British Society – Class, Gender and Motoring 1896-1939

I ought to mention that one aspect of Delage’s English advertising campaign was that the car was both fast and safe. In Elvira’s case, this obviously fell on deaf ears.

For more on Elvira and cars see https://elvirabarney.wordpress.com/2011/10/21/of-cars-and-car-crashes/ and https://elvirabarney.wordpress.com/2011/11/09/princess-karolyi-and-more-car-crashes/

Albemarle Street has other connections with Elvira, some actual and some coincidental. Staying with the motor trade for a moment, Sir Malcolm Campbell had a car sales venture there in the early 1920s, during which time one of his financial backers was Joe Carstairs.

The nightclub “Uncle’s” was situated in Albemarle Street. Known as “Nunky’s” to the Bright Young People, who  had an annoying fondness for infantilising the language, it was a favourite watering-hole of Charles Graves and he would have doubtless taken Elvira there during their ill-fated engagement.

Uncles Club 1929

An earlier sexual scandal, one which still resonated among Elvira’s friends, had started at the Albemarle club (No.13). This was where the Marquis of Quensberry left his calling card for Oscar Wilde (“the posing somdomite”), thus provoking the libel action which was to destroy Wilde’s career. Other literary connections could be found at Murray’s (No.50), publishers of Lord Byron and later John Betjeman.

Brown’s Hotel is also on the street (No.33). The remarkably unchanged Brown’s was the real-life inspiration for Agatha Christie’s  At Bertram’s Hotel  in which the murderer is a young woman named Elvira. All very psychogeographical, I feel.

Brown’s Hotel

UPDATE I’ve just come across these pictures of Josephine Baker. Baker was an artist much loved by the Bright Young People. Elvira saw her shows in Paris. The cars are, of course, Delages.

Following on from


Kate Stevens lived one door down from Dorothy Hall so was a little bit further from 21 William Mews but still pretty close. Her statement was taken later than Mrs.Hall’s and differs at certain key points.

“I am married, and the wife of John Leslie Stevens, a chauffeur. I have been living here for about two years. Just oer a year ago Mrs.Barney moved into 21 William Mews – she had a fair man living with her. He was always there and went out first thing in the morning, sometimes he would go out with her in the car, or for a walk. he was there some time and then we missed him. There were no quarrels with him. it was about when she went away last summer that this man left off coming.”

“A man who Mrs Barney called Michael went and stayed with her – I noticed him first towards the end of the year. My attention was called to him when I saw her smack his face. A man came running up the Mews from 21 saying “Where are you going?” then Michael running after them as well, then Mrs. Barney and she smacked Michael’s face and said “I hate you, I hate you”. Two policemen came along while Mrs.Barney and Michael were quarreling, after this all three went back together. I saw Michael and Mrs.Barney the following morning going out in the car together, and I saw they each had a black eye.

She used to have cocktail parties very frequently – on an average once a month, sometimes oftener. It was after these that they seemed to quarrel.

About two months ago Michael broke a window to get into the flat  – it was about ten o clock at night. Mrs. Barney told a policeman that someone had broken in. I saw Michael run up the Mews away from the flat and I later heard Mrs. Barney say to Michael that she would send for his mother.

The next day a lady, who I believe was his mother, came to that address and Michael walked up the Mews with her and shortly after this Michael and Mrs.Barney were away from the Mews for about a fortnight. I heard that Michael’s mother offered to take him to Switzerland to get him away from her.”

New Victoria Cinema

“The first time I heard a pistol shot from 21 William Mews was one night after I had been to the New Victoria Cinema, I cannot remember the picture, I got home about half past eleven at night. there was a party at 21, I heard her radiogram. About three o’clock in the morning I woke and heard Mrs. Barney quarrelling – I jumped out of bed and went to the window. I heard a pistol shot from  No. 21 which frightened me. There was a party there when the shot was fired in the house _ I could see nothing as the curtains were drawn. I know there was quarrelling because I heard raised voices outside between the guests.”

1932 Radiogram

“About three weeks ago there was a dispute at 21 about a taxi being damaged – I don’t know what it was about – this was during the night, and I first noticed Michael running from the house, I heard Mrs. Barney shouting there – I don’t know if she was at the window or the door, I heard her say “Smile, Baby, Smile for the last time.” and then I heard a shot from come from 21. Michael was near Mrs. Hall’s at No. 10. I heard Michael say to Mrs. Hall “What would you do with a woman like that?”. Mrs.Hall sais “I should not stop with her”. Michael then went up to a van in the Mews and stayed there.

About a fortnight ago, about ten o’clock at night, there were two men and a lady went to 21, she and Michael were in the house – I saw them. I do not think she wanted them there as I heard her say something about going to the police. When these two men and woman came along she shut the door and just afterwards there was a shot which seemed to come from the bedroom and afterwards there was dead quiet. I heard them say they were going for a ladder and see what had happened and they went away, but I did not see them come back. I do not think I did see Michael that night.

For about three days the windows were not opened and I thought they were away but at the end of that time I saw Mrs.Barney go out.

I heard nothing from 21 from that time until the other night, the night of a cocktail party at no. 21. They started going in about six o’clock and the party continued until about 11 o’clock.”

Jo Carstairs

“During the evening I saw Michael go up the Mews with, I believe, Miss Carstairs. He came back later on with her in a taxi. About half past three the morning of tuesday, our dog barked –  I could not sleep so I got up and I heard shots, two as I was getting out of bed and another later I got out of bed and went to the window – I heard shouting coming from No. 21 then I heard a final bang – a shot from 21. I said to my husband “I bet that’s killed him”. I heard her shouting “Come back Michael I love you.”. She kept shouting ” I love you Michael, come back.”

I got tired of hearing this and went back to bed.”

Sir Patrick Hastings had little trouble pointing out the inconsistencies between the two women’s accounts of the night of the fatal shooting. Kate Stevens was clearly wrong about the number of shots fired. However, was she in error otherwise? Well, she probably mistook Joe Carstairs for Ruth Baldwin (although this does suggest that  Carstairs did sometimes attend Elvira’s parties). Her accounts of the earlier incidents, if we allow that she interpreted any banging and crashing as a gunshot, seem reasonably convincing.  She had no reason to lie – despite Hastings suggesting that a rivalry with Dorothy Hall led her to try and “outdo” the other’s evidence. What is certainly true is the fact that if this is even a roughly accurate account of recent events chez Mrs. Barney then those friends of Elvira’s who minimised the level of the rows between Michael and Elvira (as all of them did) were being, to say the least, overly protective.


Gwen Farrar

Gwendoline Farrar (1898-1944) appears in so many inter-War reminiscences and autobiographies  that I am surprised that nobody has deemed her worthy of a full length biography. Talented, eccentric and independent, she was as distinctive a character as any associated with Upper-Bohemia or The Bright Young People. Her connection to Elvira cannot be proved but, given that she was a hard-partying Chelsea resident and very close to Audrey Carten, Jo Carstairs and Ruth Baldwin, she moved in similar circles.

The upper echelons of the Bright Young People, Waugh’s beloved but, to me, rather unappealing “Guiness Set”,  rather dismissed her as she was a little older than them and too much part of “popular culture”. Zita Jungman, sounding rather like the Victorian matriarchs her generation are supposed to have rebelled against, recalled, “Gwen Farrar was someone one saw on the stage… one didn’t see her socially.” – a statement as generally untrue as it is snobbish.Plenty of the 20s’ set saw her “socially”, at parties at her London address or out on the town, often accompanied by her friend and fellow free-spirit, Tallulah Bankhead.

Born into wealth and privilege, her father, Sir George Herbert Farrar, had South African mining interests, she had no more need to seek employment than Elvira or the Jungman sisters. In 1915 she inherited (along with her five sisters) a fortune that would allow her to purchase 217 King’s Road and a country house in Northamptonshire. She studied classical music and was taught cello by Herbert Walenn, England’s leading exponent of the instrument. She also developed a remarkable baritone speaking voice which she  was to use to great effect in her future career.

 Herbert Wallen by Elise Muriel Hatchard

During the First World War she joined Lena Ashwell’s company, entertaining the troops in France and Belgium. This forerunner of ENSA was established to bring high-culture to the ordinary soldiers but included lighter interludes. Elvira had a natural gift for comedy and began to develop an “act”. She met pianist and singer, Norah Blaney, and they formed an on and off-stage partnership that thrived in the early twenties. By 1925 , both were household names. Their duets, usually renditions of hits of the day, were often masterpieces of innuendo, Blaney taking the “female” role and Gwen  the “male”. Completely heterosexual lyrics were cleverly subverted. Most of the public remained innocent but those in the know “knew”, as it were.

Norah Blaney

They appeared in newsreel shorts, on early sound film experiments, in revues and West End shows, Music Hall and on the radio.

Away from the stage, Gwen Farrar was becoming known for hosting parties where serious drinking was the order of the day. She moved in several distinct but occasionally overlapping Lesbian subcultures. She knew Radclyffe Hall, Teddie Gerrard and from 1923 was very close to Jo Carstairs, who named her speedboat Newg  after her. She was also taken up by Tallulah Bankhead and took part in one of the early Bright Young Thing treasure hunts with her – ferried around London by Carstairs’ all-female chauffeur service. With Audrey Carten, she was arrested for punching a policeman who tried to stop her parking outside the Savoy and she seems to have had her share of (apparently obligatory) drunken car-crashes after various parties and nights out.

The partnership, professional and otherwise, with Norah Blaney ended in 1924, although they had several reunions. Her next major collaborator was the unjustly neglected pianist-composer Billy Mayerl, whose composition “Marigolds” was the most over-played piano piece of the inter-War years. Mayerl’s mixture of classical training, his incorporation of jazz stylings and his fondness for comic pastiche suited Gwen well and she also started writing revue material at this time.

Meanwhile, 217 King’s Road was becoming somewhat notorious. The location is significant. Part of a block of three houses, it was home to two other high-profile women. Lady Sybil Colefax lived at 213 and Syrie Maugham at 215.  Both were interior designers –  in fact both were the interior designers of their day. Sybil Colefax was a specialist in modernising upper-class living and drawing-rooms while Syrie, wife of Somerset Maugham, is the person who is largely responsible for the white interiors that remained dominant through to the Art Deco era.

Left        Room by Sybil Colefax                              Right        Syrie Maugham

Both women were great “society hostesses” and also rivals for the most prestigious guests. Their luncheons featured the literary, artistic and aristocratic “stars” of the day. Gwen’s luncheons and her other gatherings, though sprinkled with famous names, mainly featured alcohol and “high jinks”.

One of those who had access to all three establishments, the ubiquitous Beverley Nichols, described Gwen as “grotesque but endearing” and it may have been at 217 that he rejected Michael Stephen’s offer of cocaine. Drug use was certainly part of Gwen’s social world and by the late 1920s she was host to the racier Chelsea set, which may have included Elvira, but certainly included Olivia Wyndham, Ruth Baldwin and Audrey Carten.

213,215,217 King’s Road

Though she continued to perform and write throughout the 1930s, alcoholism had now set in. Her home was said increasingly to resemble a bar. The parties continued. At one in 1937, while Gwen and other guests were listening to a boxing match on the radio, Ruth Baldwin died of a heroin overdose. In the same year Gwen fell in love, as everyone seems to have done at some time, with Dolly Wilde who lived with her until 1939. It says something for Farrar’s lifestyle that Wilde’s former lover Natalie Barney was greatly worried about the deleterious effects on Wilde, another heroin/morphine addict, that Farrar’s endless partying was having.

Gwen Farrar died in 1944. Hers was one of the voices of the 1920s and her looks made her probably the most public “Lesbian” icon within the popular culture of the era.Her fondness for alcohol, her closeness to Tallulah Bankhead, her love of sport (she was an expert horsewoman) and her general attitude to life would all have appealed to Elvira. Farrar’s dry humour and keen intelligence may not have made such feelings mutual but I am certain that their paths often crossed.Even if they didn’t, Farrar deserves to be better known today than she seems to be . I find her both fascinating and rather likeable.

She Shall Have Music [VHS]

In the 1930s she made a few cameo appearances in British films – here she is in the fairly awful Jack Hylton feature “She Shall Have Music”. She played Miss Peachums, a stage-school “headmistress” in charge of a group of nubile young actresses. It was a role that I imagine she found amusing.

and here she is in her prime

Some of her work – with Norah Blaney and Billy Mayerl can be found on this invaluable CD also available as download at Amazon etc.

Finally, it is worth mentioning that Gwen Farrar was one of the first people to broadcast on television – an indication of her popular appeal. Her 20 minute slot in 1937 was entitled “Sophisticated Cabaret”   which is very fitting. Details can be found here

Radio Times January 1937

5 Mulberry Walk, Chelsea

Some of the guests at Elvira’s cocktail party went on to a small gathering at 5 Mulberry Walk. Ruth Baldwin who lived on the ground floor and Olivia Wyndham , also resident at the time, went straight there. Brian Howard, Anton Altmann and Sylvia Coke joined them after dining at Brice’s on Wardour Street. Howard said the purpose of the soiree was to admire the newly completed murals by John Banting. Banting and Howard had collaborated on the pictures for the Bruno Hat hoax – an iconic moment in the Bright Young People saga

5 Mulberry walk was really a block of flats, designed by Clifton R. Davy in the “stripped mannerist style” in 1913 for the artist and anthroposophist,Baron Arild Rosenkrantz. It was also home to the illustrator Claude Shepperson.

Artist Claude Allin Shepperson - Poster

by Shepperson (left) and Rosenkrantz (right)

In the early twenties the unbelievably wealthy Marion Barbara “Joe” Carstairs purchased it for £3000. Prices in Mulberry Walk today are around the£8 million mark. Joe Carstairs was an eccentric, very masculine character with a great zest for life. She was a leading speedboat racer in the golden age of that sport and after Radclyffe Hall probably the best known Lesbian in England.Her larger-than-life personality is encapsulated perfectly in Kate Summerscale’s  biography “The Queen of Whale Cay”.

Carstairs was cited by one of the William Mews chauffeur’s wives as having been at the Barney cocktail party. a claim very bluntly denied in a letter to the police. It is likely that the person witnessed was actually the equally formidable Ruth Baldwin.  Ruth Baldwin was Joe’s  “secretary” and main lover and the woman who gave her the famous Steiff doll, christened Lord Todd Wadley, who became Carstairs’constant companion and whose name  was emblazoned  and mounted on a plaque by the front door of number 5 alongside Carstairs’ and Baldwin’s.

Baldwin and Wyndham were almost certainly lovers and very close to Olivia Wyndham was the photographer Barbara Ker-Seymer ( confidante of Edward Burra and sometime resident of Mulberry Walk). Ker-Seymer is a good candidate as an attendee of both the cocktail party and the Mulberry Walk party.Whether Edward Burra  (greatly taken with both Ruth Baldwin and Joe Carstairs) was there is moot – but, due to his ill-health, he was rarely an attendee t partiesaalthough he lovingly recorded all the gossip fed back to him by Ker-Seymer and others. Banting may have been present too as he often stayed at Howard and Gathorne-Hardy’s shared flat at this time. Banting was, however, such an out-of-control character that it seems unlikely that he would not  have been noticed had he been around.

Barbara Ker-Seymer

The Mulberry Walk gathering shows, at least,Elvira’s close proximity to the fastest,artiest, gayest, not to mention the most alcoholic and drug-addicted set in London at the time .